It's a safe bet that many voters in the Fox Valley look at the Republican gubernatorial race between Scott Walker and Mark Neumann and see a distinction without a difference. For those that attended Neumann's event in Appleton last week, this is no longer the case.
Neumann spoke and took questions for about an hour or so in an informal setting at an event hosted by the Outagamie County Republican Women. The same event that Scott Walker attended a few months ago. The difference in tone and appearance of the two events was stark.
The Walker team seemed to dominate the room. Men in suits typed furiously on their mobile phones. I didn't see anyone talk into their sleeve like the Secret Service, but I half expected it at any minute. The Neumann team, by contrast, consisted almost entirely of the actual Neumann team, Mark and his wife Sue. Before Neumann addressed the group, I heard Sue tell him that they needed some more literature for the information table. After which, he handed her the car keys from his pocket and she went out to the parking lot to get it.
While the Walker stump speech had a tone of urgency, Neumann's tone was serious but calm. He stressed an incremental and systematic approach to changing Wisconsin government. An approach based on his experience in the the House of Representatives. He also highlighted his success in the private sector, an area where there is a clear line of distinction between Walker and Neumann.
The fact that Walker's career has primarily been in public office is a liability given the general anti-politician mood that is present throughout the country. Of course, Neumann served in Congress, a body whose approval rating is quite low. Even here though, Neumann is able to turn his experience in Washington into a positive. He related to the room the story of how as a freshman congressman he challenged the Republican leadership when it came to spending and survived to tell the tale. I think it's fair to say that in the current election cycle, the only thing more popular with Republican primary voters than standing up to Democrats on spending is standing up to Republicans on spending. I suspect this is a story that we will hear more about in the months ahead.
None of this is to say that Neumann will be the nominee, or the next governor. I believe that both Neumann and Walker would be superior to Tom Barrett when it comes to reducing spending in Madison, and the tax burden that goes along with it. Furthermore, Barrett's record on partial birth abortion means that pro-life voters in Wisconsin won't be able to vote for him.
If Walker is the nominee, I'll likely vote for him, but that decision is still months away. It was clear from Neumann's appearance that the notion that he and Walker were without distinction is wrong. Neumann's experience both within and without government may prove to make him uniquely qualified to tackle the challenges Wisconsin is facing.